What Makes a Face Beautiful?

Feminine features and smooth skin make for an attractive face. (Psst…makeup can help, too!)

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Symmetry and average-ness are also equally important when it comes to perceptions of beauty (yes, believe it or not, being average is cool). Both appear to indicate high variations in individual proteins, which lead to fewer birth defects in offspring.

“Symmetry works because the idea is that if you have a history of poor developmental stability—for example, a major illness or a nutrition deficiency early on—then you tend to have asymmetrical features,” Dr. Swami explains. So evolutionary psychologists believe humans have “evolved to find healthy facial features attractive, and symmetrical facial features are a good indication of health.”

Another reason you might be found attractive is because you’re familiar. In a study at Brandeis University, there was a higher rate of agreement among close friends, siblings and spouses on what they considered attractive than among strangers, suggesting that attractiveness has a strong social component, too.

Interestingly enough, Dr. Swami repeatedly found in his research an idea he refers to as the “love-is-blind bias”: “People who have already formed romantic relationships idealize their partner’s facial features, so they actually perceive them to be more physically attractive than other people would,” he says. But once you break up, the spell is over. You will soon see what others do, a more unbiased version of your ex. Those bushy eyebrows you once found so endearing? Yeah—not so much anymore.

A luminous, unblemished complexion is another factor in attractiveness—so don’t ditch your facialist just yet. There are mainly two reasons for that: Flawless skin indicates good health and youth. Smooth and relatively hairless skin indicates low levels of androgens and high estrogen. Both indicate fertility. What’s more, skin free of acne and other dermatological issues is perceived to mean healthy genes (hence, greater chances of producing healthy—you guessed it—babies).

RELATED RESEARCH: Even Skin Looks Healthy, Youthful

So we come to the magical powers of makeup. “Foundation smoothes the skin, making it appear healthier and younger,” says Dr. Pallett. “Eye makeup and lipstick can also accentuate your natural femininity.” The darker and more contrasting your lips are from the surrounding skin, the more attractive. The reason? It’s associated with agreeable respiratory health, better oxygen levels—even sexual arousal. Looks like pin-up models with their bright red lipstick had the right idea.

So if it’s all about evolution, why can’t everyone just agree on who’s beautiful and who’s not? When you talk about individuals, it gets a little more complicated. Evolution explains why we find certain attributes attractive—to a degree. Factors like voice, facial expression, body language and personality also enhance one’s appeal, meaning physical features only take you so far before your inner beauty shines through.

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